A file photo of the Slave River in Fort Smith in December 2018. Sarah Pruys/Cabin Radio
The Fort Smith Métis Council will begin monitoring water and fish all year, including throughout the winter months.
Although the council has conducted environmental monitoring for the past four years, the end of this year will mark the first time monitoring continues through the winter, said Jon McDonald, a field worker and environmental coordinator for the Fort Smith Métis Council.
Typically, the council monitors water and fish in the summer months.
In February, however, communities downstream of the Alberta oil sands, including Fort Smith, learned about a tailings pond leak at Imperial Oil’s Kearl site that had been ongoing for nine months at the time. Communities only learned about the seepage after a second major spill occurred at the oil sands mine, north of Fort McMurray.
The NWT government also heard about the incidents second-hand, despite an agreement with Alberta that commits the province and territory to communicating quickly and transparently about issues that could affect shared waters.
The lack of communication and transparency about the Kearl incidents triggered frustration and disappointment among communities downstream in the Athabasca watershed. The spill and leak also heightened long-standing worries about contamination from industries upstream.
Contamination has always been a concern for people in the Fort Smith area, according to McDonald.
“We’ve been downstream from the oil sands since they started,” he said.
Even before the incidents came to light, McDonald said the Fort Smith Métis Council had been monitoring and developing an environmental division.
The incidents “just kind-of helped streamline more monitoring,” he said, adding that he was in the middle of funding negotiations when the news came out.
“Really, I think it helped us get approved for more funding,” he said.
Checking for contaminants under ice
Earlier this financial year, McDonald said, the Fort Smith Métis Council was approved for funding to conduct water monitoring through the GNWT’s Cumulative Impact Monitoring Program.
The council also received funding from the Alberta government’s Oil Sands Monitoring Program for fish studies.
“They’ve never funded anybody outside of Alberta,” McDonald said.
He added that the council is using the funds to monitor water and fish year-round, due to concerns among community members that tailings or other contaminants might be going unnoticed under ice.
Since the community became aware of the Kearl incidents, McDonald said the Fort Smith Métis Council has conducted standard water quality tests. It has also set up polyethylene membrane devices – instruments that can detect hydrocarbons and other gas-related chemicals in water.
Due to this summer’s wildfires and Fort Smith’s evacuation, McDonald said he and his colleagues haven’t been able to monitor for several weeks, but the plan is to start again this week and continue over the winter.
He added that the work will happen at a few different sites – below the community, below its lagoon, below the dump and below the old Bell Rock uranium-contaminated shipping yard.
As for the fish studies, McDonald said he and his colleagues intend to monitor similar species to those being studied by other communities around the oil sands, so results can be compared.
He said results will be shared with the community in a twice-yearly newsletter and, for Fort Smith Métis members, in annual meetings. Asked about potential conflicts of interest with funding coming from the Alberta government, McDonald said the monitoring results will be coming straight from the Métis Council.
Since the Kearl incidents, McDonald said he has been sharing water monitoring data with the Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation (ACFN) and Mikisew Cree First Nation – both upstream of Fort Smith and closer to the oil sands in northeastern Alberta.
He added that the Fort Smith Métis Council is trying to work with other Indigenous groups, including Smith’s Landing First Nation, Salt River First Nation, the Fort Resolution Métis Government and the Hay River Métis Government Council. The Fort Smith Métis Council is also collaborating with the territory’s Department of Environment and Climate Change on several monitoring initiatives.
As the groups work together and share data, McDonald said, there’s strength in numbers.
Referring to oil sands companies, he said: “The corporations do have to be held accountable – eventually, hopefully.”
Energy regulator releases third-party review
On September 27, the Alberta Energy Regulator (AER) publicly released a third-party review of its handling of the Kearl incidents.
The review, conducted by Deloitte, concluded that the regulator followed its policies and procedures in responding to the incidents, but that those policies and procedures are outdated and lacking.
Terms such as “emergency” were not defined, for example, and details on how to communicate with Indigenous groups were vague, as the Canadian Press has reported.
The review stated that Indigenous people interviewed for the report expressed significant concerns regarding gaps in communication about the incidents. Deloitte recommended that the AER develop more detailed and clearer protocols for future communication.
Asked for comment on the review, NWT environment minister Shane Thompson said by email: “I welcome the news that the findings and recommendations from that review have been accepted and that Indigenous communities were engaged as part of the process.”
He added that interim reporting on enhanced water quality monitoring on the Slave River at Fort Smith has so far indicated the river is safe for people and animals.
“Going forward, it is my hope that industry and government partners commit to meeting the expectations of communities who live near operations like the Kearl mine. I would also like to echo the importance of establishing clear guidelines and timelines for engaging with Indigenous communities and downstream communities in a timely manner,” he said.
Others haven’t had such a positive response.
ACFN Chief Allan Adam said he does not accept the review’s findings and recommendations. He warned the regulator to “prepare for court,” as the Globe and Mail reported.
Mikisew Cree Chief Billy-Joe Tuccaro said the First Nation had lost all confidence in the AER’s ability to regulate incidents in oil sands, adding that “the seepage and spill are symptoms of a broken regulator,” as the Narwhal reported.
For his part, McDonald said he agrees with ACFN and Mikisew Cree First Nation.
“When are these companies going to be held accountable for what they’re doing?” he said in an interview on September 29. “It shouldn’t take nine months for a spill to be reported.”
As the Canadian Press reported on October 2, Imperial Oil and the AER appear to have known about the seepage even longer than nine months.
Documents filed by the company reveal that both parties were aware that tailings at Kearl were seeping into groundwater as early as 2019.
Despite three investigations into the matter, seepage at the site is still ongoing.
As of August 2023, surface water sampling from several test wells on Imperial’s lease shows levels of contaminants that exceed provincial guidelines.